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Intuitive Eating and Eating Disorder Recovery: Is it Possible?
Kelly Boaz, CNP
When I went to eating disorder treatment for the second time, they gave us two books to read upon admission. In fact, reading these books was one of the conditions for moving through the levels of treatment. These books are still on my professional bookshelf to this day - Life Without ED, by Jenni Schaefer, and Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch. Intuitive Eating is one of the cornerstones of many eating disorder recovery programs. How do you know if it's right for you?
Well, as far as I'm concerned, learning to eat intuitively is important for just about everyone. BUT, it's not right for everyone all the time. Sometimes, following a meal plan is more beneficial. Here are some common stages of eating disorder recovery where it may not be possible to practice intuitive eating:
1. You're just starting nutritional therapy
Many people seeking treatment for an eating disorder aren't used to eating appropriate amounts of food. Whether you're eating too little, too much, or just irregularly, chances are your intuition is off. It's important to work with a dietitian or nutritionist to help figure out what the right amount of food for you is. Everyone's needs will be different, so it's important to get a meal plan that is tailored to your needs. Following this meal plan will help you understand your hunger and fullness signals, and get used to eating an appropriate amount of food for you. Over time, it will be important to let go of the plan, and start to trust your intuition.
2. You're working through fear foods
Some people don't really have fear foods. Some people have a LOT of fear foods. During this stage of recovery, you may move back and forth between a meal plan and intuitive eating. If trying fear foods puts you at risk for restricting the rest of your intake, you may need a meal plan more solidly in place.
I struggled at this stage, mainly because I was in denial about my fear foods. I was convinced I just didn't like certain foods, so I didn't have to include them. Luckily, my team recognized the restriction hidden in my preferences and challenged me to try these foods. Some foods I genuinely disliked. Some foods, however, were fear foods in disguise. Because my intuition was still clouded by my eating disorder, eating 100% intuitively at this point wasn't possible for me.
3. Finances are tight
When we talk about intuitive eating, we sometimes exclude those who can't afford to eat how their body wants to eat. They need to make food choices that fit in their finances. In fact, most people can't afford to eat out 3 meals a day, so planning is important to make sure you have food available when you need it. During these times, you may be able to be intuitive when you eat and related to how much you eat, but you'll still need to plan the "what". It is important to keep things as varied as possible, though, to keep your food choices from becoming food rules.
4. Your schedule is weird
Similar to those who can't always choose the "what", shift workers and those with set schedules don't always get to choose the "when". Some days, you may not be hungry when it's time to eat. You may have to eat anyhow. Some days, you may be hungry before you have an official break. Keeping portable snacks on hand (like granola bars) will help you honor your body's timing, even when you can't control meal times.
5. You're under a lot of stress or battling depression
When I get stressed out, my appetite goes out the window. If I was trying to listen to my body's cues during these times, I would be severely under-feeding myself. When stress hits, I need to go back to the meal plan. I know what my body normally needs, so I try to feed myself as I normally would, even when I don't feel like it.
For those with a history of eating disorders, living in a calorie deficit can put us at a high risk for relapse. When we're going through periods of stress, anxiety, or depression, we may need to ignore our bodies' signals and eat more mechanically for a time. This doesn't mean that you're going backwards - it means you're ensuring you can keep moving forwards.
Whatever stage you're at in your recovery, it's helpful to have a professional guiding you through the transition from meal plan to intuitive eating. It can be tricky to figure out whether your intuition is still influenced by your eating disorder, and an outside eye can help with that.
Wherever you're at, keep going. It's hard work, but you're worth it.
Kelly Boaz, CNP is a Toronto-based Holistic Nutritionist (CNP), specializing in eating disorder recovery and food freedom. After winning her 17-year battle with anorexia, Kelly Boaz turned her life’s focus to helping others do the same. She is also a writer and speaker (TEDx, TDSB), raising eating disorder awareness, and helping people heal their relationship with food and their bodies. You can find out more about Kelly, or get in touch via her website.